How Good Is the Best Edujournalism?

A recurring theme running through my blog posts—one that could be addressed daily—is that education journalism is almost always significantly misleading and way too often completely inaccurate.

Mainstream media and journalists are trapped in false but compelling narratives about schools, learning and teaching, children, poverty, and race. Journalism itself fails education as a field because of a simplistic “both sides” to a rather cartoonish “objective” journalism.

As I have detailed too often, media coverage of education includes primarily voices and perspectives of people with no or very little experience or expertise in education, but when a few contrary perspectives are offered, those are typically framed as “some critics”—with no effort to establish which claims are credible or not.

Sadly, the best unmasking of the essential failure of the media has been by one of our faux-media comedians, John Oliver, who highlighted that even if there are two sides to an issue, one can be overwhelmingly credible while the other is mostly baseless; therefore, placing them as one-versus-one misleads the public on the weight of the arguments.

So when I received yet another email from the Education Writers Association (EWA)—who is extremely proud of itself—announcing their top award for education reporting, I wondered: How good is the best edujournalism?

The EWA Fred M. Hechinger Grand Prize for Distinguished Education Reporting was awarded for Failure Factories (The Tampa Bay Times), written by Cara Fitzpatrick, Lisa Gartner and Michael LaForgia. The series includes the following:

Without question, this series is comprehensive and it confronts some incredibly important issues about public schooling: the significant relationship between race/poverty and student achievement; the plague of segregation and resegregation in public institutions such as schools; and the huge inequities of education faced by racial minorities and impoverished students such as teacher assignments, school safety, funding, and discipline practices.

And while the series does a solid job of raising these issues, my first response is that these are all old news—I mean very old news.

That our public schools have failed poor and black/brown students is a recurring message over the last century—little different before or after the Civil Rights movement.

Therein lies a real problem with even the so-called best edujournalim—journalists without a historical lens afforded those with expertise in a field are ripe to fall prey to the lens of a novice.

One such failure of this series and then how the EWA praised the series can be found in the quoted judge’s comment:

Bravo to this team and the paper for taking an all-too-common story (low achievement in a high-poverty area) and digging past the excuses to reveal a shameful history of indifference and, most troubling, willful neglect. I was awed by the dogged reporting, the sheer volume of interviews and data-crunching, and the courageous analysis that put the blame exactly where it needed to be. But the true brilliance of this work is found in the stories of the children who were robbed of an education they deserved. How many other school districts in America might have the same story to tell?

The series title “Failure Factories” is but one of many triggers for the pervasive and ugly “no excuses” narrative that is all the rage in the U.S.

You see, once again, this series oversimplifies the story of educating vulnerable populations of students: racism and classism are merely excuses for the schools charged with high concentrations of vulnerable students.

And as the judge notes above, this is all about “blame”—and keeping the focus on those damn failing schools.

The shame is that without this corrosive and ugly framing, there is an incredible amount of work in this series that does deserve praise. We should be asking: Why do we need yet anther round of test scores to admit and confront race and class inequity—especially when high-stakes standardized testing itself is racist and classist?

The truth is that schools in the U.S. have never been, are not now, and never will be anything other than reflections of our society—unless we do things different in both our social and educational policy.

Yes, public schools almost entirely reflect and perpetuate the race, class, and gender inequities that remain powerful in our wider society, and much of that is embedded in the very reforms being championed in the media and among political leaders: accountability, standards, high-stakes testing, grade retention, zero tolerance policies, “no excuses” practices, charter schools, school choice, Teach For America, school report cards, value-added methods of teacher evaluation, and the worst of the worst—”grit.”

That is not simply a fact of the schools targeted by this series. That is a fact about public education across the entire country.

And many educators as well as education scholars have been yelling that for decades; that’s right—decades.

Possibly the most telling problem with the series is the end, where the condemnations of Arne Duncan and John King are treated as if they are somehow credible.

If this weren’t so tragic, it would be laughable—nearly rising to the level of an article in The Onion.

Therefore, here is a little message about the best of edujournalism.

Dear EWA:

Public schools have been reflecting and perpetuating the worst aspects of our society for over 100 years. People in power really don’t care, and politicians in the last three to four decades have learned that education policy is a powerful political football.

Since the Reagan administration, public schools have failed students even more significantly because of inane obsessions with accountability, standards, and tests.

Duncan and King are the personifications of all that is wrong with education policy: lots of soaring rhetoric masking policy cures that are part of the disease; thus, the accountability movement is intensifying race, class, and gender inequity—not overcoming it.

Racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia are never excuses, but facts, and these burdens are more than micromanaged and technocratic in-school only policies can address.

Yes, we need much more equitable school practices and polices—but none of what politicians are doing now meets those standards—and those alone will never accomplish what we seem to want without concurrent changes to public policy that also addresses equity.

Edujournalism, as well, is part of the problem because it remains trapped in false narratives, committed to simplistic “both sides” frames of issues, and unwilling to listen to the voices of the practitioners and scholars in the field of education.

Nearly everything addressed in “Failure Factories” was raised by novelist Ralph Ellison in a 1963 speech to teachers. Your best journalism is old news wrapped in a false frame and too often fumbled badly with good intentions.

I remain concerned that education-bashing journalism has become so lucrative for your flailing field that it is in fact as pressing that we address the journalism crisis as we do the need to significantly reform our public schools.

As agents of the public good, journalists and educators have a great deal in common that is being squandered; neither can afford as a field or in the name of that public good to remain the tools of those who have interests other than the public good.

We both can and should do better.

Christopher Emdin Confronts “White Folks’ Pedagogy”: “whether one chooses to do damage to the system or to the student”

In his For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, Christopher Emdin confronts “classroom colonialism” (p. 14), and clarifies earlier in his Preface:

What I am suggesting is that it is possible for people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to take on approaches to teaching that hurt youth of color….

I argue that there must be a concerted effort…to challenge the “white folks’ pedagogy” that is being practiced by teachers of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. (pp. viii-ix)

978-080700640-5

Among K-12 educators and the general public, terms such as “colonialism,” “critical pedagogy,” and even “racism” may seem merely academic—ideas teased out among scholars in their ivory towers. However, as Emdin carefully details and interrogates, vulnerable populations of students (mostly black, brown, and poor) as well as the teachers charged with serving those students experience daily the realities of “white folks’ pedagogy” that demands assimilation and compliance from those students.

For vulnerable populations of students, formal schooling at the K-12 levels, Emdin argues, is stunningly similar to “[t]he Carlisle School [that] employed a militaristic approach to ‘helping’ the Indigenous Americans assimilate to the white norm” (p. 4). Then and now, many educators participating in education-as-assimilation were and are motivated by good intentions (consider Teach For America core members today).

Emdin focuses his work on how all educators (including white folks who teach in the hood) should reconsider their views of race and social class while teaching the “neoindigenous,” his term for students of color and living in poverty who are currently the target of re-segregation in “no excuses” charter schools.

For White Folks arrives as more voices are pushing against education reform that claims to serve vulnerable populations while mis-serving them. Zoé Samudzi argues We Need A Decolonized, Not A “Diverse”, Education because “diversity agendas are hindrances rather than stepping stones to justice and equity.” And Joanne Golann explains about her extensive research embedded at a “no excuses” charter serving mostly black and poor students:

In a tightly regulated environment, students learned to monitor themselves, hold back their opinions, and defer to authority. These are very different skills than the ones middle-class kids learn—to take initiative, be assertive, and negotiate with authority. Colleges expect students to take charge of their learning and to advocate for themselves. One of the students I talk about in the article learned to restrain herself to get through, to hold herself back and not speak her mind. She ended up winning the most-improved student award in 8th grade for her changed behavior.

Golann also makes connections similar to Emdin’s:

Bowles and Gintis wrote this famous study where they were looking at the history of mass public education in the US. They argue that schooling expanded in large part to quell social unrest. You had these immigrant populations coming into the cities in the mid-nineteenth century, and Bowles and Gintis basically make the argument that factory owners and the professional class wanted a docile workforce. They wanted people who would be obedient and man these factories, and so they used schools as a way to socialize children to follow rules and show deference. Looking at the school I studied, I found the same behaviors but with a very interesting twist. In a new era of accountability, instead of creating workers for the factories, schools are creating *worker-learners* to close the achievement gap. Schools are emphasizing obedience because they need to create order to raise test scores and they see that as the way to social mobility. It’s the same behaviors but for a different purpose.

At the core of Emdin’s experiences as a student of color, a teacher of color, and a scholar as well as teacher educator is his antidote to the failures of both traditional education and the recent thirty years of education reform, reality pedagogy:

Reality pedagogy is an approach to teaching and learning that has a primary goals of meeting each student on his or her own cultural and emotional turf. It focuses on making the local experiences of the student visible and creating contexts where there is a role reversal of sorts that positions the student as the expert in his or her own teaching and learning, and the teacher as the learner. (p. 27)

Echoing and refining Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy concepts of teacher-student and student-teacher, Emdin carefully walks the reader through his own journey to embracing and practicing reality pedagogy while detailing in very concrete ways what this looks like in real classrooms with real students and teachers.

I could argue that Emdin’s book is a wonderful critical pedagogy primer, and that could mislead you into thinking his is just more of the “merely academic”—but this book certainly is not that.

This recommendation and review cannot adequately cover everything Emdin accomplishes—and I really don’t want to take away from educators and anyone who cares about education and children, especially vulnerable populations of children, reading carefully Emdin’s own words—but I want to highlight a few key reasons to consider carefully For White Folks:

  • First, Emdin’s reality pedagogy is both a call for embracing culturally relevant education with the neoindigenous and a powerful argument for the essential elements of how all teachers should teach all students.
  • This book in total is an outstanding entry point to confronting stereotypes about race and class while also stepping away from deficit perspectives about neoindigenous students as well as teaching and learning in general.
  • Emdin speaks to a possible revolution in education that rejects accountability built on standards and high-stakes tests in order to embrace holding everyone responsible for teaching children; this is about authentic and challenging student-centered education in the name of individual and community liberation.
  • Reality pedagogy seeks ways in which students and their teachers can form a classroom and school cosmopolitanism that is unlike the inequities of their surrounding communities, states, and country: “cosmopolitanism is an approach to teaching that focuses on fostering socioemotional connections in the classroom with the goal of building students’ sense of responsibility to each other and to the learning environment” (p. 105).
  • The many practical aspects of Emdin’s work forces teachers to reconsider daily practice with the neoindigenous and all students: instruction, content, evidence of student learning, technology, pop culture, and social media. I could also say this is a great methods primer, but again, that could be misleading.

Emdin’s For White Folks is often a confessional memoir in which Emdin speaks to his own experiences as a black male student rendered invisible, but who became an agent of “white folks’ pedagogy” when he began to teach. Much of this book is about his transformation that has become teacher education and teaching as activism—activism in the name of neoindigenous and all students.

In his brief conclusion, Emdin shares his own touchstones for teaching, and in one he strikes a note we cannot, we must not ignore:

The way that a teacher teaches can be traced directly back to the way that the teacher has been taught. The time will always come when teachers must ask themselves if they will follow the mold or blaze a new trail. There are serious risks that come with this decision. It essentially boils down to whether one chooses to do damage to the system or to the student [bold emphasis added]. (p. 206)


Recommended Companion Texts

Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap (Teachers College Press, 2013), Paul Gorski

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, Howard Zinn

NOTE: As I read, I found myself stuck at the beginning of Chapter 1 because my copy of For White Folk is an early printing that names the narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as Bigger Thomas, who is actually the main character in Richard Wright’s Native Son. After I posted about Emdin’s book on the NCTE Connected Community, I heard from another ELA teacher concerned about the error. I reached out to Emdin, who explained this was an editorial error to be corrected in newer printings. Please don’t let this mistake distract from Emdin’s great work and scholarship.

Everyone’s an Expert on Education (Not!)

So an assistant professor of finance references a physicist from 1974 in order to advocate for the research of a current Harvard economist—what do you imagine the field is that this assistant professor of finance is addressing?

Well, of course, it is A tutorial on improving education by Noah Smith, who is also a freelance writer for Bloomberg.

Once again, we are treated by mainstream media to the drumbeat that everyone’s an expert on education (not). [1]

Alas, if truth be told (and it shan’t about education from the flurry of so-called media-darling experts on education among whom none have any experience or degrees in education), Smith’s op-ed is mostly a jumbled mess of hokum.

Smith opens by citing from 1974, a practice virtually no one would accept in academia within the hard and social sciences since we tend to expect research, o let’s say, within the last decade at least.

Ironically, Smith is simply highlighting that there has been a long-standing false narrative about educational research among those outside the field of education.

Like sociology, education has suffered under the nonsensical “scientific” mantra as long as people have been doing educational research (easily for over a century, in fact, establishing a robust and powerful foundation of what we do know about teaching and learning).

Smith frames his op-ed with “physicist” (o, physics!) and the concluding smug-a-thon:

Finally, education research is becoming more of a science than a pseudoscience.

The answers we get from experiments may be less bold and confident than the answers we’d get from simply stating convictions or doing sloppy, compromised research.

But in the end, if anything will lead us to truth, it’s careful science.

That’s right, please note the headline; this is a tutorial by an assistant professor of finance citing a physicist and endorsing the research of a Harvard (Harvard!) economist.

Stupid educators! Stupid educational researchers!

But the real kicker in all this is the whole lovefest over the work of Roland Fryer; Smith argues: “Fryer’s paper is a gold mine for education policy makers, and anyone interested in school reform.”

Well, about all this sciencey gold mine? Bruce Baker has some insight on the brilliance that is Fryer on education:

A series of studies from Roland Fryer and colleagues have explored the effectiveness of specific charter school models and strategies, including Harlem Childrens’ Zone (Dobbie & Fryer, 2009), “no excuses” charter schools in New York City (Dobbie & Fryer, 2011), schools within the Houston public school district (Apollo 20) mimicking no excuses charter strategies (Fryer, 2011, Fryer, 2012), and an intensive urban residential schooling model in Baltimore, MD (Curto & Fryer, 2011)….

The broad conclusion across these studies is that charter schools or traditional public schools can produce dramatic improvements to student outcomes by implementing no excuses strategies and perhaps wrap around services, and that these strategies come at relatively modest marginal cost. Regarding the benefits of the most expensive alternative explored – residential schooling in Baltimore (at a reported $39,000 per pupil) – the authors conclude that no excuses strategies of extended day and year, and intensive tutoring are likely more cost effective.

But, each of these studies suffers from poorly documented and often ill-conceived comparisons of costs and/or marginal expenditures. [bold emphasis added]

It seems that, gosh, Fryer is rolling out quite a bit of bad science, bad research on education—what Smith calls a “gold mine.” Baker ends with this note in fact:

NOTE: I would caution however, that we have little basis for asserting that a 20 to 60% increase in per pupil spending would be more efficiently spent on these strategies than on such alternatives as class size reduction and/or expansion of early childhood programs. These comparisons simply haven’t been made, and Fryer’s attempt at such a comparison (NYC “no excuses” study) is woefully inadequate. [bold emphasis added] Pundits who argue that class size reduction is an especially expensive and inefficient alternative seem willing to ignore outright the substantial additional costs of the strategies promoted in Fryer’s work, arriving at the erroneous conclusion (with Fryer’s full support) [bold emphasis added] that class size reduction is ineffective and costly, and extended school time and intensive tutoring are costless and highly effective.

And what? Smith makes a case during his lovefest for Fryer that class size reduction is effective, and Fryer says otherwise?

O, never mind. Smith’s op-ed proves to be the thing that is jumbled, the thing that we should not heed in any way—unless we see this op-ed like the hundreds before and hundreds yet to come: nonsensical pseudo-expert commentary from any field other than education offering their smug (and flawed) pronouncements to us lowly educators and educational researchers.

At the risk of being smug myself, please, o please, all you experts out there compelled by the media to hold forth on education, stick to your field and extend the respect we deserve to those of us who have spent our careers in education in the same way you would like your own expertise and field to be treated.


See Also

My Next Book Project: The Psychology of Fixing the Economy through Better Public Policy

[1] My refrain here is a purposeful allusion to e.e. cummings since we sit still in National Poetry month—his “pity this busy monster, manunkind,/not.”

Even Technocrats with Good Intentions Sustain Classroom Colonialism

Kassie Benjamin offers a powerful confession at Jose Vilson’s blog. Benjamin—like many educators including myself—became an educator firmly holding to the belief that education is the great equalizer, the lever that changes people’s lives and society for the better.

However, Benjamin explains: “Slowly, I came to the belief I have today: education is assimilation. Still.”

In his For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, Chris Emdin names the assimilation Benjamin confronts as “classroom colonialism” (p. 14), and clarifies earlier in his Preface:

What I am suggesting is that it is possible for people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to take on approaches to teaching that hurt youth of color….

I argue that there must be a concerted effort…to challenge the “white folks’ pedagogy” that is being practiced by teachers of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. (pp. viii-ix)

Emdin points a finger at urban “no excuses” charter schools as contemporary versions of traditional schooling created to “fix” Native Americans. For example, Joanne Golann explains about her extensive research embedded at a “no excuses” charter serving mostly black and poor students:

In a tightly regulated environment, students learned to monitor themselves, hold back their opinions, and defer to authority. These are very different skills than the ones middle-class kids learn—to take initiative, be assertive, and negotiate with authority. Colleges expect students to take charge of their learning and to advocate for themselves. One of the students I talk about in the article learned to restrain herself to get through, to hold herself back and not speak her mind. She ended up winning the most-improved student award in 8th grade for her changed behavior.

Golann also makes connections similar to Emdin’s:

Bowles and Gintis wrote this famous study where they were looking at the history of mass public education in the US. They argue that schooling expanded in large part to quell social unrest. You had these immigrant populations coming into the cities in the mid-nineteenth century, and Bowles and Gintis basically make the argument that factory owners and the professional class wanted a docile workforce. They wanted people who would be obedient and man these factories, and so they used schools as a way to socialize children to follow rules and show deference. Looking at the school I studied, I found the same behaviors but with a very interesting twist. In a new era of accountability, instead of creating workers for the factories, schools are creating *worker-learners* to close the achievement gap. Schools are emphasizing obedience because they need to create order to raise test scores and they see that as the way to social mobility. It’s the same behaviors but for a different purpose.

But we should also look at a number of policies that are thinly veiled mechanisms for assimilation/colonialism.

Just as one example, tracking remains a robust practice in U.S. education, I believe, because it appears to help the so-called top students (mostly white and relatively affluent) even though a great deal of evidence shows tracking hurts the so-called struggling students (mostly black/brown and impoverished).

Further, like Benjamin and Emdin, Zoé Samudzi argues We Need A Decolonized, Not A “Diverse”, Education because “diversity agendas are hindrances rather than stepping stones to justice and equity.”

Policy makers, administrators, and teachers promoting and implementing practices, then, who are in effect perpetuating classroom colonialism may often have good intentions.

Charlotte Danielson provides us here an ironic and important model as she confronts teacher evaluation:

The idea of tracking teacher accountability started with the best of intentions and a well-accepted understanding about the critical role teachers play in promoting student learning. The focus on teacher accountability has been rooted in the belief that every child deserves no less than good teaching to realize his or her potential.

Danielson, of course, continues to criticize the recent push for extended accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing into how we evaluate, retain, and pay teachers (popularly known as VAM, for using “value added methods”).

The irony comes as Danielson slips into what I believe is the central problem driving much of the classroom colonialism challenged by Benjamin, Emdin, Samudzi, and Paul Gorski: Danielson’s alternative to the failed good intentions of teacher evaluation is just another technocratic version of teacher evaluation.

Colonialism in traditional schooling survives because education is a reflection of our society. Schools will never be transformative at the social level until formal education is unlike our inequitable social structures—until formal schooling serves our vulnerable students’ needs first by honoring them as fully human instead of framing them through deficit lenses.

School discipline begins and reflects the racially inequitable mass incarceration of the wider society. Tracking reflects and perpetuates our class stratifications.

Nearly every aspect of school policy and practice is a mechanism for assimilation—not transformation.

Education and education reform are trapped in a technocratic vision that can only replicate our society.

Education reform and the commodification of education are bound by the mantra “My technocratic vision is better than your technocratic vision.”

It isn’t about standards, but the new and better standards.

It isn’t about high-stakes testing, but the new and better high-stakes tests.

And not once, not once, has the promise of the new been realized in any ways that serve impoverished students, black/brown students, or English language learners.

However, nearly always, the policies and practices in place have served well (or at least not impeded) the whitest and wealthiest.

Emdin invokes the metaphor of invisibility throughout his dismantling of “white pedagogy” and call for “reality pedagogy.” But I am drawn to my English teacher and existential roots by the concluding image of Albert Camus’s The Stranger: the guillotine.

Camus’s main character Meursault describes that “the guillotine looked like such a precision instrument, perfect and gleaming….[T]he machine destroyed everything: you were killed discretely , with a little shame and with great precision” (p. 112).

The efficiency of the technocratic mind, the guillotine, that served the interests of the ruling elites at the expense of anyone else who did not conform, assimilate.

The technocrats, even with good intentions, maintain a classroom colonialism that honors “assimilate or die.”

 

Valerie Kinloch’s Call for Humanizing Pedagogy

I was honored and fortunate to present at the College of Education (University of South Carolina) with Valerie Kinloch (The Ohio State University), addressing Exploring Educational Equity.

During Kinloch’s sessions, I learned a great deal, and was prompted to think deeper and further about addressing inequity, especially in educational contexts—issues of race, class, and gender.

One of Kinloch’s most powerful messages warned about “putting on and taking off an equity hat”; in other words, addressing equity and diversity must be systemic and collaborative—not a one-shot workshop, course, or simulation.

At the heart of Kinloch’s message, I think, is her call for humanizing pedagogy, which is the cognate for naming, confronting, and replacing dehumanizing pedagogy, policies, and practices.

Since there is overwhelming evidence that the U.S. remains inequitable along race, class, and gender lines, we must also acknowledge that formal schooling reflects and perpetuates those inequities.

For me, the dehumanizing practices and policies in education that disproportionately impact vulnerable populations of students—black and brown students, impoverished students, English language learners, special needs students—include harsh “no excuses” charter schools and discipline policies, high-stakes testing, gatekeeping and tracking of students for challenging courses and programs, overcrowded classes, underfunded schools and programs, and inequitable assignment of experienced and certified teachers.

Dehumanizing practices and policies, for me, are all connected by deficit approaches to teaching, learning, and people.

Kinloch’s call for humanizing pedagogy is an encompassing challenge facing all educators interested in social justice and liberatory education.

This call raises the stakes about “they’re all our children”—regardless of race, class, or gender.

This call raises the stakes about the centrality of culturally relevant pedagogy as the foundational approach to teaching all children for a just and free society.

This call raises the question: Who is asking what of whom, and why?

This call raises the stakes about what it means to be an educator.

Listen, and then act.

For Further Reading

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education, Chris Emdin

If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?, James Baldwin

What These Children Are Like, Ralph Ellison

Day on Diversity at the University of South Carolina

I am participating as a discussion leader and speaker for a day on diversity at the University of South Carolina 14 April 2016. Below are my notes which may be of value to some addressing race and class in both social and educational contexts.

University of South Carolina

April 14 1:30 pm

Svec. M., & Thomas, P.L. (2016). The classroom crucible: Preparing teachers from privilege for students of poverty. In A.L. Hurst & S.K. Nenga (Eds.), Working in class: recognizing how social class shapes our academic work. Landham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

http://www.heinemann.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Confronting-Privilege-to-Teach-About-Privilege.pdf

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2014/11/13/my-redneck-past-a-brief-memoir-of-twos/

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2015/12/20/i-dont-belong-heremy-otherness-my-privilege/

April 14 6 pm

“How do we look at systemic issues of equity in institutional settings?”

20 minutes

Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education, Chris Emdin

Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School, Kathleen Nolan

Hope Against Hope, Sarah Carr

Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap, Paul Gorski

No Caste Here? Toward a Structural Critique of American Education, Daniel Kiel

Abstract:

In his famous dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, Justice John Marshall Harlan argued that in the United States, there was “no caste here.” Justice Harlan was rejecting the idea that American society operated to assign preordained outcomes to individuals based upon classifications, including racial classifications. This Article questions whether Justice Harlan’s aspirational assertion accurately reflects contemporary American education. Identifying: (1) multiple classification mechanisms, all of which have disproportionate racial effects, and (2) structural legal, political, and practical impediments to reform, the Article argues that the American education system does more to maintain the nation’s historical racial hierarchy than to disrupt it. This is so, the Article suggests, despite popular agreement with the casteless ideal and popular belief that education can provide the opportunity to transcend social class. By building the framework for a broad structural critique, the Article suggests that a failure to acknowledge and address structural flaws will preclude successful comprehensive reform with more equitable outcomes.

Privilege

Racism, classism

deficit perspectives (word gap, achievement gap, grit)

Paternalism

Accountability v. equity — academics and discipline policies

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2014/12/04/grit-education-narratives-veneer-for-white-wealth-privilege/

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2016/04/06/are-racially-inequitable-outcomes-racist/

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2016/03/29/race-and-education-a-reader/

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2014/02/11/what-these-children-are-like-rejecting-deficit-views-of-poverty-and-language/

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2014/05/01/revisiting-james-baldwins-black-english/

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2016/03/29/race-and-education-a-reader/

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2015/06/12/recommended-reaching-and-teaching-students-in-poverty-paul-c-gorski/

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2016/03/22/a-crack-in-the-dam-of-disaster-capitalism-education-reform/

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2016/01/23/understanding-poverty-racism-and-privilege-again-for-the-first-time/

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2014/12/30/bearing-witness-hypocrisy-not-ideology/

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2014/12/31/responsibilities-of-privilege-bearing-witness-pt-2/

http://www.heinemann.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Confronting-Privilege-to-Teach-About-Privilege.pdf

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2014/11/20/thomas-race-matters-in-school-discipline-and-incarceration-opinion-columns-the-state/

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2015/09/03/criminalizing-black-children-begins-in-our-schools/

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2014/11/30/creating-crime-criminals-to-justify-deadly-force/

http://cedar.wwu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1184&context=jec

Confronting the “Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations”

A a political refrain and mantra from the “no excuses” reform movement, the “soft bigotry of low expectations” has resonated among many stakeholders in education.

As Education Week has reported, a new report seems to confirm that among vulnerable populations there is a significant concern about low expectations for black and brown children (and likely among poor, English language learner, and special needs children as well).

The problem with the “low expectations” claim, however, is that the political and education reform use of the slogan is dishonest and misleading, while the new report offers an excellent reframing of how significant and important the concern is.

The “no excuses” movement has positioned the public against schools and teachers serving vulnerable populations as simply not trying hard enough, thus “low expectations.” Concurrently, vulnerable students themselves have been characterized as lacking “grit,” not trying hard enough.

In that vacuum created by politicians and reformers, education policy has increasingly demanded less and less of schools, teachers, and those vulnerable students by increasing the standards and testing focus of education.

The great and disturbing irony of the “no excuses” and “low expectations” movement is that test-prep is cheating black/brown students, poor students, ELL students, and special needs students of challenging educations—while mischaracterizing the ways in which traditional schooling has failed those students historically.

Is there a problem among progressives and white, middle-class teachers who view black/brown and poor students through paternalistic and reductive/deficit lenses?

Yes, there absolutely remains a failure among too many educators who lack a culturally responsive view of teaching, who remain trapped in deficit ideologies such as the “word gap” and a need for “other people’s children” to have basic skills (see the work of Lisa Delpit).

And even more troubling is that among many educators, there is a problem with distorted “high expectations” about discipline, resulting in the criminalization of black and brown children in our schools.

Therefore, I am in no way discounting that there exists a “soft bigotry of low expectations,” but I am rejecting the use of that slogan among “no excuses” reformers who push for racist and classist high-stakes testing as gate keepers and for the expansion of segregating charter schools that increase harsh and racist discipline policies also found in traditional public schools.

New Education Majority: Attitudes and Aspirations of Parents and Families of Color offers a chance for education advocates to reconsider the sloganification of education reform, and to listen to the exact vulnerable populations many “Superman” and “miracle school” saviors (most of whom have no education background, but so have paternalistic missionary zeal) claim to be serving.

The reality of low expectations for vulnerable populations of students include the following:

  • Underfunding and inequitably funding schools serving vulnerable populations of students.
  • Failing to address teacher certification and years of experience for schools and courses serving vulnerable populations of students.
  • Continuing to allow gatekeeping to track “other people’s children” into test-prep while white and affluent students have inequitable access to Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and gifted programs.
  • Masking student/teacher class ratios behind school averages while vulnerable populations of students sit in large classes in the same schools where white and affluent students benefit from low ratios (typically in those AP, IB, and gifted courses).

The problems we continue to ignore in society and education are anchored in race and class inequity: being white and affluent continues to heap tremendous benefits while being of color and poor is a stunning and often inescapable burden.

Those inequities, as well, cannot be overcome by school-only reform policies, particularly when the most popular reforms are themselves perpetuating race and class inequity.

If parental choice and the market place matter (more refrains you hear among the “no excuses” crowd), why do we ignore that the most affluent parents in the U.S. tend to choose private schools with rich curricular options (including a wide array of the arts), low student/teacher ratios, and a glaring absence of test-prep, standards-based coursework?

The answer isn’t pretty: the “no excuses” reform movement is not about the best interests of vulnerable populations of students or vulnerable communities, but about their own investments in education reform.

As I have noted before, we must not trust advocates invested in education reform at the expense of the children and communities those reforms claim to serve.

We must, instead, begin to listen to vulnerable populations who are suffering the negative consequences of race and class inequity, advocates of children and communities.

It is among the “we” who are privileged to listen and then act to create both social and educational policy from an equity of opportunity perspective and not an accountability perspective that further marginalizes children and communities who need our public institutions the most.

Are Racially Inequitable Outcomes Racist?

Among what may seem to be marginally related policies and conditions, these all have one startling thing in common—grade retention, school discipline, NCAA athletics, incarceration, “grit,” “no excuses,” zero-tolerance, high-stakes testing (such as the SAT and ACT), charter schools and school choice—and that commonality is observable racially inequitable outcomes that are significantly negative for blacks.

My own experiences with exploring and confronting race and racism through my public writing has shown that many people vigorously resist acknowledging racism and will contort themselves in unbelievable ways to avoid accepting facts and data that show racism exists.

Common responses include “I am not a racist,” “I am sure the people who started X didn’t intend to be racist,” “White people experience racism too,” and “Everyone has the same opportunities in this country.”

And while I continue to compile a stunning list of ways in which racial inequity and racism profoundly impact negatively black people, resistance to terms such as “white privilege” and “racism” remain robust.

In the wake of the NCAA Final Four, Patrick Hruby has attempted a similar tactic I have used in order to unmask the racial inequity in college athletics by carefully working readers through the evidence in order to come to an uncomfortable conclusion about the financial exploitation of college athletes (money-making sports being disproportionately black) by the NCAA and colleges/universities (leadership and those profiting being overwhelmingly white) along racial lines:

Understand this: there’s nothing inherently racist about amateurism itself. And there’s no reason to believe that its defenders and proponents—including current NCAA president Mark Emmert—are motivated by racial animus….

And yet, while the NCAA’s intent is color-blind, the impact of amateurism is anything but. In American law, there is a concept called adverse impact, in which, essentially, some facially neutral rules that have an unjustified adverse impact on a particular group can be challenged as discriminatory….Similarly, sociologists speak of structural racism when analyzing public policies that have a disproportionately negative impact on minority individuals, families, and communities. State lottery systems that essentially move money from predominantly lower-class African-American ticket buyers to predominantly middle-and-upper-class white school districts fit the bill; so does a War on Drugs that disproportionately incarcerates young black men; so does a recent decision by officials in Maricopa County, Arizona, to drastically cut the number of presidential primary polling stations in and around Phoenix, which unnecessarily made voting far more difficult for the residents of a non-white majority city.

Big-time college sports fall under the same conceptual umbrella. Amateurism rules restrain campus athletes—and only campus athletes, not campus musicians or campus writers—from earning a free-market income, accepting whatever money, goods, or services someone else wants to give them. And guess what? In the revenue sports of Division I football and men’s basketball, where most of the fan interest and television dollars are, the athletes are disproportionately black.

And herein lies the problem with refusing to equate racially inequitable outcomes with racism.

Hruby’s detailed unmasking of the NCAA comes also during the troubling rise of Trump in presidential politics—another marker for how many scramble to find any cause other than racism.

Trump’s rise is not exclusively the result of overt and unexamined racism, but a significant amount of his success is easily traced to a wide spectrum of racism.

However, from the rise of Trump to the so-called popularity of charter schools to the school-to-prison pipeline and to the spread of third-grade retention policies, all of these and more are fueled by racism because racism, we must acknowledge, is most insidious when it isn’t overt, when the racist person or the racist act is unconscious, unacknowledged.

The impact of racism in NCAA sports, as Hruby details, is the elegant racism Ta-Nahisi Coates unpacked when Donald Sterling became the NBA’s face for oafish racism (along with Clive Bundy in popular culture).

What has occurred in the U.S. since the mid-1960s is an end to placard racism, the end of “White Only” signs on bathroom and restaurant doors.

What has not occurred in the U.S. yet is an end to seeing black boys as significantly older than their biological ages, an end to tracking black children into segregated schools and reductive courses, an end to incarcerating black men—and this is a list that could go on for several pages.

Racial (and class) equity will never occur in the U.S. until the white power structure admits that racially inequitable outcomes are in fact racist.

White privilege is a powerful narcotic that numbs white elites to the harm that privilege causes black and brown people, but it is also a powerful narcotic that pits poor whites against black and brown people because poor whites believe their whiteness gives them the chance at great wealth held by only a few.

That the NCAA maintains a structure within which black athletes produce wealth enjoyed almost exclusively by white elites is an undeniable fact and a startling example of the elegant racism eroding the soul of a free people—an elegant racism eating at the roots of public education, the judicial system, the economic system, and nearly ever aspect of the country.

Racially inequitable outcomes are racist, and this must be admitted in order to be confronted and then to be eliminated.

Reclaiming “Direct Instruction”

After I posted two blogs on authentic literacy instruction (see here and here), several readers tripped over my use of the term “direct instruction.”

Before examining the value in that term (and what it means), let me offer a couple of anecdotes.

While I was teaching high school English, a colleague teaching math had a classroom directly across from my room, separated by a court yard. With, I think, equal parts joking and judgment, that teacher used to say often, “I wish I could teach while sitting at my desk.”

Not unimportant here is the distinct pedagogical differences among math and English teachers—one that I believe we can fairly say is a tension between math teachers being teacher-centered and sequential while English teachers can lean more often toward student-centered and workshop approaches (although my caveat here is that English teachers can be some of the most traditional teachers I have ever met).

In my story above, the math teacher’s comment is an excellent example of the confusion over “direct instruction.” Yes, many people see direct instruction as lecture—thus, mostly if not exclusively teacher-centered with students relatively passive.

For this colleague, my students working in a writing workshop with me responding to drafts, conferencing, and the other purposeful elements of workshopping did not meet her definition of “teaching.”

Another illustrative story involves my daughter.

Her second grade teacher was a colleague of my wife, who teaches PE at the primary school. One day in passing my daughter’s second grade teacher told my wife that my daughter had been doing extremely well on her spelling tests until she began intensive and direct phonics instruction. Since then, she noted, my daughter’s spelling grades had suffered significantly.

This second example represents the ultimate failure of a narrow view of teaching having to be a certain limited type of direct instruction.

Now, when I use the term “direct instruction,” as one person perfectly commented about my blog post, I am addressing purposeful and structured or organized instruction, but I am not using the term as only teacher-centered practices.

To be direct, or purposeful, then, I see teaching as an act with several goals: curricular (including standards and high-stakes tests addressing those standards), disciplinary, and student-centered.

In any given class, teachers must address all three, but pedagogically, teachers often have some degree of autonomy over how to address these goals.

As I champion “direct instruction,” I am cautioning against placing curriculum and discipline above student, but I am also calling for building all instruction on some evidence of need.

Curriculum guides and standards justify a need; the discipline (ELA as literacy, literature, and composition) justifies a need; and students come to all courses with needs.

“Direct instruction,” then, is purposeful and organized teaching targeting one or all of these needs.

As a critical constructivist, I maintain that we must start with allowing students to produce artifacts demonstrating what they know, what they don’t know, and what they are confused about in the context of our curricular and disciplinary obligations.

Direct instruction is simply teaching with purpose to address those needs.

A failed view of direct instruction is grounded in covering the curriculum or the obligations of the discipline regardless of the students in the course.

Teaching algebra sequentially, likely with the textbook determining the structure, in order to document that you taught algebra; teaching a phonics program, again, in order to document that you taught reading—this is the failure of a narrow view of “direct instruction” that supplants the needs of the students with the needs of curriculum and the discipline.

If and when a child is spelling and decoding well, to go over phonics is a waste of time, but also very likely harmful—just as many studies of isolated grammar instruction show students becoming more apt to make “errors” after the instruction.

So here we can begin to unpack that the problem is not with “direct,” but with “isolated.”

The problem is with teaching the discipline, teaching a program, teaching to the standards and/or high-stakes tests instead of teaching students.

I am advocating for direct instruction built primarily on student needs—purposeful and structured lessons designed after gathering evidence of student strengths, weaknesses, and confusions.

And I must stress that my argument here is wonderfully confronted and unpacked by Lisa Delpit, who came to this debate because she recognized the other side of the coin I haven’t addressed yet: so-called student-centered practices that cheat students (mostly our vulnerable populations of students) by misunderstanding the role of direct instruction, by misreading progressive and critical practices as “naturalistic” or unstructured.

Writing and reading workshop are not about giving students free time to read and write; workshops are about time, ownership, and response that is purposeful and structured.

Student-centered practices are not about letting children do whatever the hell they want.

As Delpit has addressed, that isn’t teaching, and it certainly cheats students in similar ways that bullheaded and narrow uses of teacher-centered practices harm students.

If a teacher isn’t guided by needs and grounding class time in purpose, that teacher isn’t teaching.

But until you have a real breathing student in front of you, you cannot predict what that direct (purposeful) instruction will (should) look like.

Ultimately, I believe narrow uses of the term “direct instruction” are designed to shame student-centered and critical educators.

I refuse to play that game because I am directly (purposefully) teaching when I place the needs of my students before but not exclusive of the needs of the curriculum and the discipline.

And, yes, while I also hope someday more teachers can teach while sitting at their desks, I am more concerned about how we can come to embrace teaching as purposeful and structured without reducing it to a technocratic nightmare for both teachers and students.

Don’t Trust Invested Advocates in Edureform Wars

South Carolina remains a disturbing subset of the larger education reform movement effectively dismantling but not improving pubic schools, institutions that have historically and are currently failing vulnerable student populations who need public opportunities more than anyone.

Charleston is now the battle ground over expanding charter schools and embracing the already failed turnaround or takeover models that many early adopters in other states are ending.

The public version of the debate has included the following:

Beyond the specifics of the issues of this debate about takeover policies and charter school expansion (and the implications of privatizing public schools therein), this debate highlights a very important issue for SC and the nation: Don’t trust invested advocates of education reform.

The current charter school debate, we must acknowledge, is just the latest version of the much older school choice debate. Notable about the school choice debate is that choice advocates have constantly shifted their promises, ignored when they fail to come through, and then moved on to the next carnival scam.

The debate over charter schools and takeovers in Charleston, then, is another time we must heed Why Advocacy and Market Forces Fail Education Reform.

Advocates for Meeting Street Schools are driving with vested interest expanding their model, and making dramatic claims without providing the data and evidence for disinterested parties to analyze.

Part of school choice advocacy, including the current charter push, includes making grand claims before the data are available for unmasking those claims.

SC has a large pro-charter movement that routinely falls ways short of any sort of competition model: 4 or 5 charters out of over 50 producing data better than comparable public schools, and most charters are no better and many are worse (see analysis of two years here).

These “miracle” school narratives fail on logic (outliers are irrelevant for determining typical), but as Harris has show, disinterested analysis of “miracle” schools has shown that “only 1.1 percent of high-poverty schools were identified as ‘high flyers.'”

School choice is a shell game, one resting its promises on indirect action that is necessarily no positive action at all.

The only direct action is investing fully in public education that starts with the interests of our most vulnerable students and not the promises of adults invested in their own interests.